Socrates and Plato -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Socrates and Plato

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By subordinating the objective world to subjectivity, the sophists had stripped it of all inherent law and necessity. The sole source of order, rationality and causation was the perceiving subject. Everything was declared to be relative. For example, they held that morality and social conduct was determined by convenience (a similar view is held by the Pragmatists, a philosophy which enjoyed a lot of support in the United States, and which fits in nicely with the need to make morality compatible with the ethics of the "free enterprise" jungle). Thrasymachus of Chalcedon in the late 5th century B.C. openly declared that "right is what is beneficial for the stronger or better one."

This was another period of war, revolution and counterrevolution. In 411 B. C., after a hundred years of slave-owning democracy, there was a revolution in Athens, followed by a counter-coup two years later. There followed a disastrous war with Sparta, which imposed the rule of the "Thirty Tyrants," under which numerous atrocities were perpetrated by the aristocratic party in power. But by 399 B. C., the Thirty had been overthrown, and Socrates, who had the misfortune to have had several of them as his pupils and friends, was put on trial and sentenced to death.

Socrates (469-399 B.C.) was regarded by his contemporaries as a sophist, although he did not teach for money. Though he wrote nothing—his ideas have come down to us through the writings of Plato and Aristotle—he had a huge influence on the development of philosophy. His origins were humble; he was the son of a stonemason and a midwife. The motive force of his life was a burning desire to get at the truth, tearing aside all pretences and sophistry by a relentless process of question and answer. It is said that, in his attempt to get people to think about universal principles, he went about the workplaces of artisans and merchants, as well as the haunts of sophists and youths, subjecting all to the same procedure.

The method was always the same: setting out from a particular idea or opinion, usually derived from the concrete experiences and problems of life of the person involved, he would, step by step, by a rigorous process of argument, bring to light the inner contradictions contained on the original proposition, show its limitations, and take the discussion to a higher level, involving an entirely different proposition. This is the dialectic of discussion in its classical form. An initial argument (thesis) is advanced. This is answered by a contrary argument (antithesis). Finally, after examining the question thoroughly, dissecting it to reveal its inner contradictions, we arrive at a conclusion on a higher level (synthesis). This may or may not mean that the two sides reach agreement. But in the very process of developing the discussion itself, the understanding of both sides is deepened, and the discussion proceeds from a lower to a higher level.

The same dialectical process of the development of thought through contradiction can be seen in the history of science and philosophy. It was graphically expressed by Hegel in the Preface to his pioneering work The Phenomenology of Mind:

"The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the like of the whole." (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, p. 68.)

It is possible to say that in the Socratic dialogues we do not find a worked out exposition of dialectics, but we do find many important examples of the dialectical method in action. The celebrated Socratic irony, for example, is not just a stylistic trick, but a reflection of the dialectic itself. Socrates wished to make other people become aware of the contradictions underlying their own ideas, beliefs and prejudices. From each definite proposition, he deduced as a direct result, the exact opposite of what the proposition stated. Instead of merely attacking his opponents’ ideas, he would put them in a position where they themselves would draw the opposite conclusion. This is precisely the basis of irony, not just here, but in general. This dialectic of discussion is an art which was perfected by Socrates. He himself likens it to the art of midwifery, which he jokingly claimed to have learnt from his mother. It is, to quote Hegel, "the assisting into the world of the thought which is already contained in the consciousness of the individual—the showing from the concrete, unreflected consciousness, the universality of the concrete, or from the universally posited, the opposite which is already in it." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 402.)

In just the same way, the task of Marxists is not to introduce into the working class a socialist consciousness "from without," as some have imagined, but to proceed from the existing state of awareness of the class, and show concretely, step by step, how the problems which workers face can only be resolved by a radical transformation of society. It is not a question of preaching from without, but of making conscious the unconscious aspiration of working people to change society. The difference is that this process is not brought to fruition exclusively in the debating chamber, but by practical activity, struggle and the experience of the class itself. The problem, nevertheless, remains essentially the same: how to break down existing prejudices and get people to see the contradictions present, not only in their heads, but in the world in which they live—to get them to see things as they really are, not as they imagine them to be.

Socrates would begin with the most self-evident, everyday, even trivial facts given to us by our senses. Then he would compare these with other facts, proceeding from one detail to the next, and in this way, gradually eliminating all accidental and secondary aspects, until, finally, we are brought face to face with the essence of the question. This is the method of induction, proceeding from the particular to the universal, a most important method for the development of science. Aristotle explicitly credits Socrates with the invention (or, at least, perfection) of the method of induction and logical definitions which are closely related to it.

The search for the general which lies hidden within the particular is one of the most important aspects of the development of human thought in general. Starting with elementary sense perception which registers individual facts and circumstances, the human mind begins slowly and painfully to abstract from these particulars, discarding the inessential, until it finally arrives at a series of more or less abstract generalisations. Though these "universals" have no existence separate and apart from the particular things that embody them, they nonetheless represent the essential being of things, expressing a far truer and deeper truth than the particular. The progress of human thought in general is closely related to the ability to generalise on the basis of experience, and to arrive at abstract ideas which correspond to the nature of reality.

In his autobiography, Trotsky touches on this question:

"Later, the feeling of the supremacy of the general over the particular became an integral part of my literary and political work. The dull empiricism, the unashamed cringing worship of the fact which is so often only imaginary, and falsely interpreted at that were odious to me. Beyond the facts, I looked for laws. Naturally, this led me more than once into hasty and incorrect generalisations, especially in my younger years, when my knowledge, book-acquired, and my experience in life were still inadequate. But in every sphere, barring none, I felt that I could move and act only when I held in my hand the thread of the general." (Trotsky, My Life, p. 88.)

The aim of Socrates was to proceed, by means of logical argumentation, from the particular to the general, to arrive at the "universal." For him, this was no longer a question of getting to the most general laws governing nature, as was the case with earlier Greek philosophers, but rather of man examining himself, his own nature, his thought and actions. The philosophy of Socrates is not the philosophy of nature but the philosophy of society, above all of ethics and morality. His favourite subject is "What is the Good?" In reality, this question can only be answered concretely, with reference to the historical development of society, since there is no such thing as a supra-historical morality. This can be seen clearly in the case of ancient Greece, where the very language betrays the historical relativity of morality. The Greek word for goodness "arete," like its Latin equivalent, "virtus" (from which we get the English "virtue") originally meant something like combative manliness. As J. D. Bernal points out: "It took a long time to soften into the ideal of citizenship and still longer to Christian submissiveness." (J. D. Bernal, op. cit., p. 135.)

Nonetheless, what is important is not the subject matter of these dialogues, but the method. This really represents the birth of logic, which was originally the handling of words (Greek "logoi"). Thus, logic and dialectics were originally the same—a technique for getting at the truth. The method involved breaking up concepts into their constituent parts, revealing their inner contradictions, and putting them back together again. It was a dynamic process, with even a certain element of drama and surprise. The first reaction to the discovery of a fundamental contradiction in previously held ideas is one of surprise. For example, the idea that motion implies being and not being in the same place at the same time. The dialectic constantly challenges what appeared at first sight to be unquestionable. It shows the limitations of vulgar thinking, "common sense" and superficial appeals to the "facts," which, as Trotsky rightly remarked, are "so often imaginary, and falsely interpreted."

The task of going beyond the particular, of breaking down the information provided by our eyes and ears, and arriving at abstract generalisations lies at the root of the development and growth of human thought, not only in a historical sense, but in the evolution of every individual in the arduous struggle to pass from childhood to conscious maturity. In the writings of Plato (428-348 B.C.) the search for the general, the "universal," becomes the central issue of philosophy to the exclusion of all else, one might say almost an obsession. In these works, profound thoughts, a brilliant style and some masterly examples of the dialectic of discussion are mixed up with the most blatant and mystifying idealism ever produced by the human mind.

For Plato, the universals of thought, for example, the idea of a circle, had an independent existence, separate and apart from particular round objects. From a materialist stand point, as we have seen, the idea of a circle was originally derived from the observation of round objects over a long period of time. Not so, says Plato. If one looks at any example of a round object, for instance the plate on this table, it will be seen to be imperfect. It is therefore only a poor copy of the perfect circle that existed before the world began. For a class of wealthy intellectuals, used to working only with thoughts and words, it was logical that these should appear to them to be endowed with a life and a power of their own:

"The emphasis on the discussion of words and their true meanings tended to give to words a reality independent of the things and actions to which they referred. Because there is a word for beauty, beauty itself must be real. Indeed it must be more real than any beautiful thing. This is because no beautiful thing is altogether beautiful, and so whether it is beautiful or not is a matter of opinion, whereas beauty contains nothing but itself and must exist independently of anything in this changing and imperfect material world. The same logic applies to concrete things: a stone in general must be more real than any particular stone." (Bernal, op. cit., p. 138.)

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